When looking at Wikipedia to research this review, I learned that Clint Eastwood is a big fan of jazz. It was one of those moments where, suddenly, a whole lot of things snapped into place. So much of Eastwood’s filmography, this film in particular, has a breezy, easy, almost lackadaisical quality. And like jazz, it’s best to just sit back and let the rhythm take you where it takes you.
The rhythm, in this case, takes us down the story of Earl Stone, the 90-year-old Korean war veteran turned horticulturist who has been all but rejected by his family. A lifetime of bad decisions and missed anniversaries has piled up, making him a pariah at most get-togethers. His twilight years are given new direction, however, when he stumbles into a new job: drug running. He’s now a “mule”, transporting bags full of cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel, all while the DEA (led by Laurence Fishburne, Bradley Cooper, and Michael Peña) close in.
Wouldn’t it be easy to write off Clint Eastwood? Here’s a man coming up fast on his 90s and still directing and starring in movies. Shouldn’t he be content with his two Oscars? But to do so would risk overlooking the legacy of one of cinema’s all time masters, as well as ignoring just how weird most of his career has been. Yes, he’ll most likely always be known first and foremost as The Man With No Name, with Dirty Harry as a close second, but does anyone remember that his first ever directorial feature was the stalker thriller Play Misty For Me? Or that he soon followed that up with the hippie-positive Breezy? Or what about The Bridges of Madison County? Or Changeling? The point I’m trying to make here is that Clint Eastwood’s collection of movies is far more diverse and experimental than most people give him credit for or even realize.
So in a way it makes perfect sense that this be his swan song. Why not? It’s no less weird than the time he planned Gran Torino, the movie about an aging war veteran coming to terms with his bigotry as his final bow. It wasn’t, of course. In the 10 years since Gran Torino, we’ve had a whole slew of films from the movie-making machine that is Eastwood. And honestly, a part of me can’t help but wonder if we’d be at all more charitable towards Eastwood if Gran Torino really were his last picture. It’s easy to forget, but for a while there the man was a God-Mode directing streak of Spielbergian proportions. Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, one after the other, all magnificent. In the decade since Gran Torino, while we did get the wonderful Invictus, we also got the “just alright” Sully, the tepidly recurved J. Edgar and Hereafter (though I do quite like that one), and the downright awful Jersey Boys and The 15:17 to Paris. By comparison, it’s hard not to think how the mighty have fallen.
If it sounds like I’m reviewing Clint Eastwood’s entire filmography more than Clint Eastwood’s latest film, it’s probably because I kind of am. But it’s also because at 88 years old this really might be it for him. And this man’s been working since movies were black and white, and he’s still at it, and for that we owe him our due. As far as swan songs go, you could probably do better than The Mule, although it’s by no means bad (and although I’m saying “swan song” here, no one would be less surprised than me if 10 years or so down the line, Eastwood popped back up for a third cinematic farewell). It’s interesting, certainly. I’ll admit to spending more time in the movie thinking about what Eastwood was saying about his enduring legacy than I did getting invested in the character, which probably speaks to some kind of failure in the way the movie’s written, but weirdly it’s not a crippling one. Eastwood is good in the movie, very good in fact. He manages to be funny in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and affecting in ways that are never in-your-face about it. I always like it when he reminds people he’s more than just a scowl and a growl (though he does a lot of both here). For a lot of scenes, his character is downright jovial. The supporting cast is certainly game as well, with Bradley Cooper in particular getting two very good scenes with Eastwood, although I can’t help but notice that the ending hinges on a connection between Eastwood’s character and Cooper’s FBI agent chasing him…a connection the movie doesn’t quite sell.
It’s also very obviously an old man’s movie. One of the running gags is the previous generation and how obsessed they are with their newfangled cellular telephone devices, and wasn’t it so much better when people just lived their lives instead of staring at a screen day in and day out, don’t ya think (although I’d probably be less annoyed, I think, if the dumbass next to me didn’t go out of his way to validate the movie’s point by going on his phone during the movie several times. Screw you, dude). The relaxed pace of the movie certainly benefits someone of Eastwood’s age (and I’ll warn you now, this isn’t a film with a BANG BANG BANG ending), and reminds me once again of Gran Torino, which was actually written by the same guy (Nick Schenk). And it once again has Eastwood playing a prejudiced old man, although like Gran Torino, the movie very explicitly doesn’t condone or agree with his views (this, of course, hasn’t stopped a fair number of online clickbait articles to decry “Eastwood’s racism”; I especially love the articles written by people who get critical plot elements of the movie wrong, indicating that they haven’t even seen it).
This is a movie with immersive scenes, but it’s not a particularly immersive movie, at least not in the way Eastwood’s been previously. But if it’s never quite immersive, at least it’s always enjoyable. It’s jazz: there’s the odd missed note, but mostly it’s just got this wonderful flow that carries you away and leaves you smiling.
Incidentally, it also taught me that horticulturists have their own awards ceremony. There is an awards ceremony for people who work on flowers. Hey, the more you know.